When Reuben returned to the cistern and saw that Joseph was not there, he tore his clothes. He went back to his brothers and said, “The boy isn’t there! Where can I turn now?” — Genesis 37:29–30
The Torah portion for this week, Vayeishev, which means “and he lived,” is from Genesis 37:1—40:23, and the Haftorah is from Amos 2:6—3:8.
Should’ve, could’ve, would’ve — three of the most tragic words of our lives. They are words of longing for another chance, words of regret. They are words that come far too late or could have been avoided altogether.
In this week’s Torah portion, there is plenty of drama. Joseph, clearly Jacob’s favorite, let his brothers know just how highly he thought of himself. And whether or not he was conceited or just revealing the truth about the prophetic dreams he had been having, Joseph certainly came off as arrogant to his ten brothers. To them, it seemed that Joseph was a threat, and so they decided to get rid of him.
But how? They decided that killing Joseph was the easiest and certainly most definitive solution. They planned to cover up the murder by telling their father that Joseph was ravaged by a wild animal. Reuben, the oldest of the brothers, knew that killing their brother – no matter how out of line Joseph appeared to be – was wrong. At the same time, Reuben was not sure that he would be able to overrule what his brothers had already decided. So he suggested that they put Joseph into a pit and let him die naturally, while he secretly planned to return and rescue Joseph later.
The brothers agreed, but the plan went awry when Judah, brother number four, convinced the other brothers to sell Joseph instead of letting him die. Reuben was unaware of the change of plan. So when he returned to the designated pit and discovered it empty, he was utterly distraught, thinking Joseph was dead. He tore his clothing in grief and cried out, “The boy isn’t there!” The guilt and regret were overwhelming – why hadn’t he saved Joseph earlier? Why did he delay? He screamed, “Where can I turn now?”
Thousands of years later, Hillel the Elder coined a phrase to ward off Reuben’s tragic situation. He said, “If I don’t help myself, who will help me? And if I only help myself, what am I? And if not now, when?” Hillel warns us to destroy procrastination before it even starts. Basically, he is saying, “If I don’t do it, no one will. It is up to me to help myself and others.”
But it’s Hillel’s last words that have reverberated most powerfully through the centuries: “If not now, when?” As Ruben tragically found out, there is no time like the present. If we hesitate, even for a few moments, precious opportunities can be lost forever.
Hear the agony in Ruben’s cry and heed the urgency of Hillel’s call. What opportunity is open to us today? The time to act is now.
With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein
Founder and President